Juba, South Sudan – You can hear Monica Michael before you can see her. The instructions are growing louder, she’s moving quickly and as the sun beats down, the stifling heat starts to make its mark. Sweat drips from her brow but she shakes if off, and on she goes.
“I enjoy sparring with the boys,” she says. “I love kickboxing, and I love training.”
She is one of about 30 people at kickboxing practice at the Juba Youth Training Centre. There are no ropes here and no proper ring. Just a set of concrete rooms planted on a wonky grass field in the neighbourhood of Hai Neem in South Sudan’s capital.
The fighters, led by their master, go through a routine which includes a series of stretches and combinations before they pair up and start sparring.
While young boys watch, other older boys work out using makeshift weights made of a lead pipe as a barbell and round concrete slabs as plates. Monica is the only girl.
The gym is the brainchild of Puro Okelo Obob, a martial arts fighter, promoter and professional kickboxer. He has been the driving force behind getting South Sudan accepted into the World Kickboxing Federation after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
A rare fighter
Obob says Monica is one of his best fighters. But while she is dedicated, she is also a minority. She is one of only three girls who participate.
“I want more girls to come here for kickboxing because it is good for training. You don’t have to fight competitively,” Monica says.
“If I ask my friends: ‘Do you want to come and join me?’ they say, ‘No, it’s for boys.’ They don’t want to box people,” she says.
Monica is a rarity in other ways as well: She’s a 21-year-old high-school student in a country where only 35 percent of girls get an education. Girls are also three times more likely to die in childbirth than finish school in South Sudan, according to UNICEF.
Unlike one of the other girls at the gym, she says she’s been lucky because her family has been supportive.
“All my family enjoy training. There was no resistance from them,” she says. “My family all want me to enjoy training; they are very encouraging and say ‘Do what you want to do’.”
For South Sudan, which has struggled through a disastrous two-year civil war, with tens of thousands killed, millions going hungry and 1.66 million displaced, sport has not been a priority, especially not less popular sports such as kickboxing.
Originally from what was then Sudan, Obob and his family moved to Canada in 1986. He left his career there in 2008 with the dream of starting a kickboxing community in South Sudan and using the sport to overcome stereotypes and tribal differences.
“My dream is to get these kids believing in something positive … regardless of whether they are a man or a woman or what tribe they are from,” he says. “I want them to start feeling they are part of a team and not divided along tribal lines.”
It’s a big barrier to break down. Tension between South Sudan’s two main ethnic groups has been exacerbated by the two-year conflict, which began in December 2013.
It started after President Salva Kiir, who is from the Dinka group, accused his former deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup.
At times the fighting was divided along ethnic lines, but after two years, those lines have been blurred with shifting alliances and other outbreaks of violence not connected to the rivalry between Machar and Kiir.
Obob’s students have been caught up in the violence. Just days after the civil war started, one of the most promising fighters, James Kuol, went missing.
Kuol was considered a rising star in African kickboxing. He held a world ranking of 16 and was the East African champion for 2012.
Kuol and his family had to flee to the UN-operated civilian protection site in Bentiu in Unity state. Two years on, he is still there.
He is one of several regional champions that the Juba Youth Training Centre has produced. Joseph Pio, another fighter, is also among them. He says he wants to be world champion but knows that time is not on his side as he is 33.
“I only have until I’m 35 to have a real go and get as far as I can with kickboxing,” Pio says.
Pio and his team-mates have travelled to compete in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Egypt. But those trips are expensive.
Their ambition is hamstrung by a lack of funding for the centre, making travel to tournaments costly and difficult. Obob has funded every trip with some sponsorship from Juba Casino.
“I get no income from this,” says Obob. “Everything here, like the gloves, for example, are donated from supporters I have in Canada,” he says.
A lack of funding is one of the big challenges, and efforts to lobby the government for some financial support have so far come to nothing.
In a country wracked by war and poverty, Obob is hoping the centre can give young people a way out of the boredom on the streets of Juba and show that tribalism and violence can be overcome.
So far, he says, it is shaping up to be the biggest fight of his life.
Follow Caitlin Mcgee on Twitter: @MsCaitlinMcGee